Posted by: Matt | July 10, 2007

Review of Voices from Chernobyl

Voices from ChernobylVoices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster
Svetlana Alexievich

Reason for reading: It sounded like a fascinating book and Chernobyl has always been sort of creepy and mysterious for me. I also chose it as one of my Non-fiction Five challenge books.

Quote: (See previous post)


In 1986, a disaster occurred at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine. It is considered by many to be the worst nuclear power accident in history. Alexievich, a Russian journalist, recorded the thoughts of some of those who’s lives were forever changed by the Chernobyl incident.

Voices from Chernobyl is quite possibly the most heartbreaking book I have ever read. Were it fiction it would be deeply saddening, but this is worse, it is fact. The Prologue alone is enough to give you a sense of the heartache this event caused. Alexievich wastes no time introducing the reader to the tragedy of this accident as a woman relates the death of her firefighter husband due to radiation poisoning. The book ends with a tale nearly as disturbing and is, by no accident, eerily reminiscent of the first.

For the survivors, the Chernobyl accident was another war. The people of Russia seem to identify themselves with the wars of the Soviet Union. However this war was not against other people but against an invisible foe. A foe that poisoned their crops, animals, water supply, clothing, and their bodies. It was difficult for them to understand something they could not see. They could not understand why it was necessary to evacuate their cities, to take necessary precautions. This only made things worse as they ate food and wore clothing poisoned by radiation. They became walking nuclear reactors. Hot, as they say.

The Soviet Union’s devotion to secrecy made things worse. The people did not understand radiation and their country did not explain or instruct. They asked only for heroes. People to sacrifice everything to put out the reactor fires, to bury poisoned houses, poisoned earth.

The stories in this book are fascinating but tragic. It is interesting in that every word appears to be taken directly from interviews. Sometimes this causes confusion in the text as the interviewees spoke off the cuff without arranging their thoughts. Or maybe something was lost in translation. However, for the most part the reader can feel the sorrow, loneliness and sometimes pride of the people of Chernobyl, the Chernobylites. United, like many people, by catastrophe.

: 4.0



  1. I haven’t read any books about Chernobyl, but I have seen some documentaries of the aftermath. The devastation is just stunning.

  2. I think one of the films was called Chernobyl Heart, about the effects on children.

  3. This does sound really interesting!! I don’t think I’ve read anything about Chernobyl before!!

  4. tara – I’ve read about how the city is still abandoned. It won’t be safe for humans for hundreds of years more. But plant and animal life are flourishing there for some reason.

    Stephanie – This is the only book I’ve read on the subject. It’s strange and scary thing.

  5. I read this book last summer, and was also profoundly moved, or even a little bit obsessed, by it. I was interested by her editorial style as well: she almost never intervened in the stories of the survivors and their families, even to provide context for those (like me) who knew virtually nothing about Chernobyl before picking up the book. I thought that was a really bold move, successful on the large scale and often frustrating on the small.

  6. Sycorax Pine – You’re right, she never did intervene. I think that’s what led to some of it being a bit weird and confusing. Sometimes those she interviewed would say random things that didn’t seem to make much sense.

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